Just so that we can be clear: there is no such thing as a secular world. By that, I mean that there is no such thing as the world apart from God, a world without God, or a world existing in a “neutral zone.” The good God who created the heavens and the earth, sustains them in their very existence. He has not made Himself absent, nor so endowed the world that it has existence apart from Him. We have created ideological zones in which we try to remove all reference to God or to control behavior in such a way that it can be conceived apart from God, but these are mere intellectual tricks. We cannot make God disappear, regardless of our ideas or declarations. God is simply everywhere present, filling all things.
Understanding this and embracing this is perhaps the most fundamental step in living a right relationship with the cultures in which we dwell. Creation is not our enemy, nor are the institutions, mores, customs, folkways, etc., of the culture around us inherently evil. The successful moments of Orthodox culture, whether of Byzantium or Holy Russia, are not examples of a past that must be reclaimed and re-instituted in the present. The successful moments in Orthodox culture (however relative that success may have been) are demonstrations of what is possible in the Divine/human life of faith.
Cultural activities such as music, dance, the arts, commerce, etc., are also inherently human and are inherently holy. That we pervert them or employ them for perverted ends is not surprising – even religion itself is frequently directed towards perverted ends. By “perverted” ends, I am not particularly referencing sexual perversion, but rather every deviation and turning from the proper ends ordained by God for true human fulfillment.
While it is true that God became man so that man could become God, it is equally true that God became man so that man could become man – truly human. To be truly human we must sing and dance, create art and tell stories. We engage in commerce and build cities. All that is human life and existence is a gift from God and has a God-given purpose and direction.
The false narrative of secularism says that religious activity is the realm of human concern with God, and the only proper realm of such concern. It holds that there are such things as non-religious activities and thus realms of human concern where God is not proper nor welcome. The intrusion and introduction of God into such activities is seen as the intrusion and introduction of elements that are foreign and extrinsic, even corrupting of the activity itself. Many Christians have given way to these assertions. Thus we allow ourselves to think, “Now I am doing something Christian, now I am not.” Such thought is, unconsciously, a renunciation of the Christian God. I have described it elsewhere as “Christian Atheism.”
The false dichotomy of religious/non-religious, or sacred/secular too easily demonizes culture and the world or their activities. Some religious groups seek to solve this problem by creating a parallel Christian culture: thus “Christian Rock” music and “Christian Romance” novels. A common result is often bad music and bad literature. As a rejection of culture it becomes a false creation.
The salvation of the human person must include the salvation of the whole person. It is the transformation of our life into the image of Christ. I can easily imagine Jesus the carpenter making tables and chairs. I expect Him to have made truly excellent tables and chairs according to whatever knowledge he was given. But I don’t expect Him to have carved little Stars of David on them to make them acceptable. If a chair rightly fulfills its role as chair – then it is good. It does not also have to be a carving post for religious anxieties.
The dichotomy between Christian/non-Christian obscures more global concerns. Our faith is far more endangered by the dominance of consumerism than by the lack of overt religious content. Consumerism distorts our humanity as well as any faith that becomes enmeshed in it.
The consumer-driven religious life has resulted in Churches that major in personal fulfillment with little attention to doctrine and sacrament. It is a new form of Christianity, one that differs from its own Protestant ancestry as much as its ancestry differed from the Catholic. And though it has its largest representation within Protestant or non-denominational Churches, both Catholic and Orthodox communities are not immune to its power and its thought. Orthodox Christians are sometimes as guilty of “shopping” for their parish (or jurisdiction) as any mega-Church seeker.
In the Tradition of the Church stability and continuity are more than occasional values. Tradition must be inculcated and passed on – it cannot be chosen, bought, or shopped. But Tradition should not be a concern for Orthodoxy alone: being human is a tradition. Despite the fact that the modern world likes to constantly re-create itself, the most fundamental things of human life are nurtured and taught by a generation older than oneself. This happens within the family, the extended family, the Church and the larger, more immediate community. The breakdown of those communities, in consumerist and commuter isolationism increasingly mean that the culture fails in its most primary tasks of socialization. We are becoming a culture of barbarians (with apologies to barbarians).
It is a commonplace to lament the “lack of civil discourse.” We would do better to lament the lack of civilization – for it is this most fundamental lack that is manifest in our inability to talk with one another. The dominance of the consumerist/commuter culture does not bode well for the near future of the traditional Christian Church. For the tradition of the faith requires a different kind of human being than we are currently nurturing.
There is no such thing as the secular, but the holy world created by God can be so distorted that it becomes opaque to itself. In such a world human beings lose their way, imagining themselves as something less than human – a recipe for misery.
But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy. Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul, having your conduct honorable among the Gentiles, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation. Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme,or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men– (1Pe 2:9-15 NKJ)